Stephen Sondheim

Celebrity deaths I have noted: Leonard Nemoy, Carrie Fisher, Chuck Yeager, Sean Connery, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The list goes on. I haven’t personally known any of these people, but each has contributed in some way to something I love. I was sad to hear of their passing. Then Stephen Sondheim passed away and I found myself, for the first time, crying over the death of someone I didn’t know. What was going on?

I’m not really a Stephen Sondheim fan. I don’t dislike his work; I don’t know most of it. I saw the 1961 movie adaptation of “West Side Story” once and have heard the music as often as any American. I know a little about “Sweeney Todd.” But then there is “Into the Woods.”

I first heard “Into the Woods” around 20 years ago. My sister was working on a project for one of her classes; it was a paper or report on “Into the Woods.” She had the CD and as she listened to it, I picked up the booklet inside the CD cover and started reading. I found a little masterclass on storytelling inside. I learned about the power of symbols (such as the woods). I learned how protagonists stand in the audience’s place. I learned that many of the most interesting stories explore beyond “happy ever after.”

I returned to the music and listened as the characters traveled into the woods and accomplished their goals. The music was fun. It was nice to see how the characters met their challenges. It was satisfying to see them reach their happy ever after. But that was only the first act.

The challenges of life didn’t stop. New ones, heart-breaking ones, arose. The play ends on a more ambiguous, but far more powerful note. Characters have been betrayed. Some have died. It’s a lonelier and sadder ending, but those who are there at the end keep going. They help each other. They’ve found each other in the woods.

I didn’t get it all back then. But I loved it. I listened to that CD many, many times. When a local theater put on a production and one of the actresses (who went to church with my family) invited us, I happily went. Seeing the play in person was even better. Not only did I hear all the dialogue that wasn’t on the CD, but I was also introduced to a trope I love – the narrator interacting with the characters and the audience.

Over the years I’ve continued to listen to “Into the Woods,” but I’ve never explored any other Stephen Sondheim work. Up until last week, I would have just said “Into the Woods” was a musical I really enjoyed.

Then I heard the news of his passing. “How sad,” I thought. As I read the tributes online, people quoting his most powerful lines, sharing how he touched their lives, my eyes kept filling with tears. Why? I didn’t understand why.

“The Daily” podcast episode from December 3, which may have brought the most tears, helped me answer that question. In it the theater critic, Jesse Green, spent a few moments towards the end explaining “Finishing the Hat.” They play a part of the song (which I hadn’t heard before) and then explain how it explores an artist’s dedication to art, despite the cost. It capped a discussion of how Stephen Sondheim loved the art he was creating and valued it and encouraged others to produce art. His message? It’s worth it.

Which brings me back to the question: why did Stephen Sondheim’s death cause a casual fan grief? The best I can explain it, “Into the Woods” has given shape to my desire to be a storyteller. Reading that CD cover 20 years ago started a journey that I’ve only recently accepted as mine. Stephen Sondheim’s efforts to reimagine old stories, his ability to explore the complexities of life with nuance, his effort to elevate his artform have all stuck with me.

As I listened to the Daily’s exploration of Sondheim’s work, I thought about my own doubts. I have a law degree. I have kids to take care of. I never even actually wrote a draft of a book until a couple of years ago. Does the world need another writer? Does this really make sense?

Stephen Sondheim was telling me, yes. I spent 7 years studying economics, philosophy, and law. That was valuable time I spent trying to find meaning in the world around me, figuring out why it is shaped the way it is. And now it’s time for me to share that journey with others, to help them find meaning.

Maybe you’re rolling your eyes. Books are just entertainment, right?

Or maybe not. Is that just my inner critic?

Stories are all we have to make sense of the world. So, I’m doing it. I’m making a hat. Because I know things now I hadn’t known before. I know that Stephen Sondheim, without ever knowing I existed, helped nurture a love of stories in my heart. He showed me that stories can shape lives. I hope to someday produce something that can shape another’s life.

A word on weight

I’ve usually been pretty comfortable with my weight. For most of my life, it wasn’t something I thought about much, which is a reflection of viewing myself as medium-size. I’ve always known people who were smaller and people who were larger. Of course, whether I actually was medium-size is up for debate. I also thought I was tall for a while, because I was tall in 8th grade. My college roommate (who had been shorter than me in 8th grade) disabused me of that notion. This lesson has stuck with me: my perception about myself can be pretty flawed.

Right now I weigh less than I have for the last 5 years (and probably longer. This is just as long as I’ve had a scale in my house). I have mixed feelings about sharing this with the world. For one thing, I’ve never been big on dieting. I was raised in a home that didn’t focus much on outward appearance. The impact of our eating on our weight was never discussed (that I remember).

My parents taught us the typical lessons learned from their depression-era parents: be grateful for what you have, eat what’s available, and finish your plate. Both working and raising 7 kids, the meals they made needed to fill two criteria: most of us needed to eat them and they needed to be relatively quick to make. We had lots of processed foods, but there were always fresh fruits and vegetables (not always served with the meal, but they were in the house).

I think my parents did pretty good threading the needle of a society obsessed with thinness and saving time (a combination leading to our obsession with both fast food and fad dieting). That said, there are some things I’ve learned since getting married and being introduced to a different family’s food culture.

First, how to recognize when I’m full. Until recently, my main gauge was whether I’d eaten more than everyone else. After all, men are supposed to eat the most, right? But as I’ve tried to imitate my wife – who is very good at listening to her body – I’ve begun to recognize that I won’t waste away if I stop eating before I feel uncomfortable. Second, breakfast doesn’t come with fruits or veggies. I’m still struggling with this one. My time in Australia actually revealed to me the fact that American breakfast is just an excuse to start the day with dessert. At one of the first activities I attended after I arrived, the Elders’ Quorum (the congregation’s men’s group) played basketball and had pancakes. At 10 in the morning, that seemed sensible to me. Then they served the pancakes with ice cream on top. I was surprised and when I said so, they said, “Pancakes are a dessert, so why not put ice cream on top?” And, well, I’ve couldn’t gainsay them. Third, carbs are not the base of the food pyramid. Why they were placed there in government messaging is a topic for another post, but most of a meal should be fruits and veggies. My favorite guide for how much of various categories to put on your plate is here. Once again, my wife’s example has helped a lot here. Though there is a little part of me that’s sad I’m not baking more often.

Thanks for reading a likely somewhat boring, oddly personal post. This was me priming my brain for writing my novel (which will be less boring, I promise…I hope).

Every word here is a word not in my novel…

So I’ll keep this short. I have written every day of November so far, but yesterday was the only day I hit the word count necessary to hit 50k by the end of the month. It takes focus and determination and some sacrifice. And I’m also trying to build a paver patio in my backyard…. My brain and my body will be very sore for the next few weeks, I think.

Well, back to it. Need to hit 2000 words today to start getting back on track and I’m 174 words in.

NaNoWriMo 2021

One month. 50,000 words. 3rd time.

I have an outline, some characters, and some world details fleshed out; which is far more prep than for either of the previous two novels I wrote.

Today I need 1667 words. Wish me luck!

Choose Parenthood: No other success can compensate for failure in the home

The other day Alisha and I were watching The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. We read the book (I recommend) and thought we’d enjoy the film. I did, up until the mom was interrupted in some task to clean up the poop her toddler had smeared all over the living room. Too real.

I was (and still am) in the midst of potty-training my 3 year-old and have a toddler in diapers. I’ve got housework that kids are always interrupting. It simply was not enjoyable for me to watch a film about someone dealing with the same things.

Of course, no one’s going to write a book or make a film about my life. Alisha isn’t a deadbeat alcoholic spending all her earnings before she gets home. I have an advanced degree, meaning I don’t have to resort to the whims of contest judges to support my kids, should the need arise.

What about that advanced degree, though?

Let me bring you back to ten years ago this month. Alisha and I arrived in Austin, ready for the next big step in our lives. I had dreams of clerking for a judge and maybe becoming a judge myself someday. Whatever the end, law school was about to start and I was excited for this step that I had worked toward for years. Alisha had a good job and would work through law school to cut down on our debt load.

A few times during law school and since, some decision points have come in which I made a decision many men do not make. I prioritized caregiving. Now, I never planned to be the primary caregiver for my children. If I’d had different job opportunities, there’s a good chance my daily schedule would look very different than it does now. But life worked out the way it did and I’ve learned some powerful lessons because of that.

At the core is this: for the sake of women, children, families, and men, we need men to step up in the home.

Men belong in the home

I grew up in a conservative community, yet my parents modeled a non-conservative partnership. My parents each worked full-time. Even though this was my day-to-day reality, I perceived our family as a sort of aberration. The ideal was 1950s America – the father should be the sole breadwinner and the mother should be the caregiver and homemaker. But because my mother worked as a nurse, my dad would cook, clean, and take care of kids when he was able. Of course, since he commuted for hours everyday, in reality my siblings and I did a lot of that work.

This equal partnership in my parents marriage – sharing the burden of housework, meals, and childcare – modeled behavior that is healthier for everyone. My mother has lived a fulfilling life because she has pursued the dream she had since she was 9 – to be a nurse. My siblings and I have a healthy relationship with my father because he was present and involved in our lives. My father never was under the illusion that it was ok to come home from work and sit down in front of the tv while there were dishes to be done or floors that needed cleaning. I attribute a lot of the success my siblings and I have had to my father present in our home.

I’m not saying that I think women should all have careers outside the home. What I am saying is that being present at home should be automatic for men the way it is for many women.

A father is a father first

We often think of women as mothers first and if they have a career, that’s a nice bonus. Men, on the other hand, have a career first and are fathers second. If the man doesn’t have a career, he’s falling short. This is wrong! I often grew up hearing the phrase, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” If only we truly believed that! If it were so, we would be less judgmental of men who truly prioritize their children.

Now, I will point out that I personally have received nothing but support. No one has, that I am aware of, ever accused me of being lazy or somehow neglecting my duties as a man. But years of cultural indoctrination have made it difficult for me to fully accept my current role in life, free of guilt. Maybe this is a me problem. But if you happen to share this problem, welcome to the club! You and I, we’re still doing our part! Our work at home is just as important to society as any work we could do in an office.

If we do believe this, it should reflect in our legal and corporate policies. Paternal leave should be just as common as maternal. Fathers should be expected to scale back their work when they have young children. Peter Panning from Hook should be the exception, not the rule. No corporation should demand that workers put the company first. There are certainly some moves toward this, but we have a lot of work left to do.

Men need to share the mental burden

While I was still in law school I learned first hand some of the cultural norms I’d internalized, despite the household I grew up in. We had our first child in the middle of my second year. When it was time for Alisha to return to work, she spent a great deal of time thinking about childcare for our daughter. I gave some input, but largely left it up to her. She eventually brought up that we had never discussed who should be in charge of childcare. I’d simply assumed she would take care of it. There is a little personality at play here – Alisha is more of a planner than I am. But enough women have written about this topic in the years since that I know there’s more to it than just our individual quirks.

To have a truly equal partnership, men and women need to share the mental burden. That doesn’t mean that men should always be picking the daycare. It does mean that parents need to discuss it and figure out who will take the lead. I’ve tried to be better about this since those early childcare days. I still have room for improvement, but I think I’ve gotten better over the years, more often considering questions about childcare, child-rearing, and other traditionally women-led topics.

My parents never set out to defy tradition or to be revolutionary. Neither did I. We simply did what we needed to so that we had enough to eat and a place to sleep. The result actually looks a lot like most of history – men and women doing what is necessary to provide for the family, care for the children, and maintain their house. While the sole breadwinner nuclear family can be an incredible privilege, it is exactly that – a privilege. For most people, it is out-of-reach. A healthier, more universally obtainable approach is for the adults in the home to discuss how they will earn an income and divide the housework and childcare.

The ideal American family should be one in which the couple communicate openly and often about how they will share their roles as providers, parents, and homemakers. For many people, that may look a lot more like Leave it to Beaver than my childhood and current home. The exact division of labor isn’t what’s important. What matters is that men are involved in the lives of their spouses and their children and are truly living the reality that success in the home is the greatest contribution to society they can make.

Now I better stop neglecting my children…

Meet Your Enemies

Ezra Booth, an early convert to Joseph Smith and the Restored Church, became disillusioned after only a few months. He wrote letters to a newspaper that resulted in a public backlash against Joseph Smith and the missionaries he was sending to the surrounding area. In December 1831, Joseph Smith received direction from God to stop working on a translation of the Bible and try to undo some of the harm of the letters. Here are some of my thoughts about the instructions God gave them in what is now Doctrine and Covenants 61.

“Meet your enemies”

Joseph was commanded to meet his enemies in public and in private. We can meet our enemies – or those who disagree with a cause we support – by being open to discussion with them. No matter how important our cause or how dedicated we are, this is valuable. If we understand the position of those who disagree with us, we are better equipped to strengthen or adjust our own position to achieve better outcomes and convince more people to join us.

Of course, we should be wise in who we choose to engage with. We shouldn’t feed the trolls. The trick is learning to distinguish between the trolls and those open to discussion. Fortunately, in my experience the trolls reveal themselves early on. Holding back to my own troll-like tendencies and disengaging from those time-wasting conversations is the next challenge.

“Confound your enemies…their shame shall be made manifest”

Our cause cannot convince if we don’t speak up. To remain silent is to let our enemies define us. But I think the phrasing of the second part is vital. “Their shame shall be made manifest” is not a call to shame others. It is a statement that as we speak truth, error will be revealed. We do not need to help it along by calling people out, tricking them, embarrassing them, or seeking to ruin their life in some way. Clever memes aren’t going to win the day. Doxxing and bullying are bad regardless of who the target is. Truth will win the day as long as we speak it – and it will take time.

“Let them bring their strong reasons”

A conversation is not a lecture. Recognizing that our enemies are fully developed human beings – thinking, feeling people who have reasons for believing what they do – God tells us here to listen to those reasons. And not just in a condescending, “let them have their say” way. He says, “Let them bring forth their strong reasons against the Lord.” We need to listen to and recognize the best reasons against our cause. Our own faith is only as strong as the strongest arguments against it we have acknowledged. If we refuse to hear and ponder “their strong reasons,” then we are simply closing our eyes to potential truth. One of my favorite thoughts on this comes from a forum – one I did not save a link to, so this is my attempted paraphrase – “If we come across evidence that conflicts with our interpretation of scripture, then it is our interpretation of scripture that must change.” The truth isn’t changing – our attempt to understand it is.

Words are an imprecise means of conveying ideas. We shouldn’t be surprised that we have, at times, failed to understand the ideas passed down to us from previous generations. I believe that there is an ultimate, universal truth out there. But I also believe it can be really, really hard to identify and communicate. I’m struggling to arrive at that truth and convey my understanding of it in a way that brings along as many people as possible.

Rehearsing your doubts

This last weekend the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked us to “stop increasing [our] doubts by rehearsing them with other doubters.” I felt uncomfortable when I heard this. This post is my effort to work through that discomfort. I hope the doubters and the non-doubters will find something valuable in this post.

For the non-doubters, I hope you recognize the wonderful gift you have been given. It is not, as Paul told the Corinthians, a gift that everyone receives: some receive knowledge, some receive faith. This implies not all do. Joseph Smith said something similar: some receive knowledge and others simply believe in their words. It may seem strange that someone would remain in the Church without that gift. I hope we can simply celebrate that they choose to remain, rather than criticize them for gifts they have not received.

For most my life, I had the gift of solid faith in Christ and that this is His church. But sometime over the last decade, that gift was taken from me. I have had to rebuild my faith without it. I went from confidently pronouncing it’s truth to wrestling with God to figure out what was true. I’ve never considered leaving the church; the alternatives don’t resolve my questions satisfactorily. I have rebuilt my faith, but it looks different than it did 10 years ago. The process has led to lots more questions.

In asking some of these questions, I’ve received some pushback. I’ve been told certain forums aren’t the correct place to ask certain questions. I think that’s right. It’s never wrong to ask a question, but who you ask and when matters. I think the error we make is saying, “This isn’t the right place,” without having an answer for what is the right place.

Doubts will arise. Questions will be asked. Who do we want to answer?

If only the doubters will listen, then we shouldn’t be surprised when those with doubts go to them. The prophet didn’t say don’t doubt. He didn’t say don’t express doubt. He said to take our doubts to the Lord and faithful sources. He said to choose faith.

My plea to fellow believers is to be a faithful source. Be welcoming and loving. Be an example of choosing faith. As Peter counseled, “be ready always to give an answer to every man who asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” This requires something of us. We must be willing to listen to hard questions. We must be willing to ask those questions if we haven’t before. Otherwise, how can we be a faithful source? The process is uncomfortable but when we ask hard questions and “remove the debris,” our foundation will only be strengthened. Then we will be a supporting pillar, rather than a stumbling block.

My plea to the doubters echoes the prophet’s: seek out faithful sources in addition to the doubters. We can’t learn how to do something without speaking to those who successfully do it. If you need someone who will listen, I always have an open ear.

No church? Then I’ve got a corporation (or political party) for you!

You may have seen this graph:

“Church Membership Among U.S. Adults Now Below 50%” Graphic courtesy Gallup

Gallup: Fewer than half of Americans belong to a church or other house of worship (religionnews.com)

I doubt I’m the first to ask whether a decrease in organized religion is related to other trends, such as greater commitment to political party, greater demands on corporations to adhere to social and moral goals, and the rise in populism. I think it’s a common desire to be connected to something larger. We want to better the world, to help the next generation live better lives, to improve the conditions around us. For generations, organized religion was a major means to accomplish these goals.

With over half of Americans no longer attached to a church, perhaps they are searching for other organizations to work through. The easiest way to accomplish big things is to use big organizations. Two alternatives are big government and big corporations.

This leads to several questions: Do we need big organizations to accomplish big things? If we do, does transferring our moral and spiritual commitments into business and governmental organizations work? Or did the separation of those things into separate spheres benefit our society?

Julie and Julia

We just finished watching Julie and Julia. An inspiring movie for an aspiring writer.

I had no idea when we started that it was a movie about a writer. I certainly didn’t expect a movie about food to make me guiltily realize I haven’t posted on my blog for over a month.

My biggest realization was that I would benefit from a more focused purpose for my writing. Focus is something I always struggle with. I don’t think I’m alone.

So, if you spent a year writing a blog, what would you write about?

Learning to love the Doctrine and Covenants

Hearken, O ye people of my church, saith the voice of him who dwells on high, and whose eyes are upon all men; yea, verily I say: Hearken ye people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea, listen together. For verily the voice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to escape; and there is no eye that shall not see, neither ear that shall not hear, neither heart that shall not be penetrated.

Doctrine and Covenants 1:1-2

As a missionary in Australia, I was very hesitant to share the Doctrine and Covenants with people. My preference was to start with the Book of Mormon. I mean, why would I share with them a book full of divine revelations for today when I could share the translation of an ancient record written on golden plates Joseph Smith found buried in the woods? Sometimes I want to slap my 20 year-old-self on the head.

Setting aside origins, there is at least one good reason the Book of Mormon is easier to latch onto than the Doctrine and Covenants – narrative. The Book of Mormon has it. It can be fun to read about Nephi building a boat. Alma struggling with a son who has left the faith is relatable. Meanwhile, the Doctrine and Covenants is piecemeal, without context (except for brief paragraphs introducing each section). Why do I care about Oliver Cowdery or David Patten? Who are they and what were they doing? The book provides little to no context. Let’s compare another book of scripture: the Old Testament. Which book do you know more about? Micah or Exodus? My bet is on the latter. Micah is way shorter, but Exodus is a story, and a pretty interesting one at that. Narrative works.

So why does the Doctrine and Covenants lack narrative? My guess is that when it was first published as the Book of Commandments, there wasn’t much need. The missionaries carrying the book with them (the main source of demand for the book), knew the context. They knew, personally, the people named in the book. They had met and spoken to Joseph Smith. They had participated in the events giving rise to the individual sections.

In the generations that have passed since the Book of Commandments was published in 1831, that personal connection has dissipated. We are multiple generations removed from the people who recorded the majority of the revelations. With the growth in the Church outside the United States, the descendants of those involved in the revealing, recording, and publishing of the book make up a smaller and smaller portion of church membership.

As a result, context is more important. Fortunately, the Church has delivered. Four and a half years ago, the church published Revelations in Context, a book telling the stories behind each section. The Church has also been publishing an official history called Saints. The first two volumes have covered the time period during which most of the revelations were published. There are Church history essays published on the Church website. And in this year’s Come Follow Me manual, there are links to even more resources.

I wonder if, at some point, more context is added to the Doctrine and Covenants itself. Perhaps portions of Revelations in Context or Saints get placed between sections. This would make the book more enjoyable to read and easier to understand. Of course, there should be some caution in editorial additions to scripture. Some of the problematic passages in the Bible are possibly the result of these editorial additions that later scribes thought were part of the original text. But since we believe in an open canon – that we are saints receiving revelation alongside the saints of previous generations – it’s certainly a possibility.